My cousin Lu has started a blog that has a lot of posts about her son and my godson, Will, who is six years old and very smart and starting kindergarten this year.
A couple of recent entries make it clear that Will is starting to ask the big moral questions — What, if anything, is infinite? Why do people die? — probably in part because his parents take these questions seriously, and in part because he’s got an unusually rich variety of moral theories and structures in his life: various strains of Paganism, Judaism, Episcopalianism, and probably some other stuff besides. These questions are a whole lot tougher than the “Why is the sky blue?” variety, because the adult world has no consensus answers for why people die, what happens when they do, what lasts forever, etc.
Death is not an easy concept for children, and I’m not sure it’s an easy concept for adults. Early and indigenous religions seem to have settled for an awkward vagueness: the dead go to some shadowland like Sheol or Valhalla or the Elysian Fields, or they become some kind of spirit, or something.
Beginning around 2600 years ago or so, a series of religions began to develop clearer views of what happens after death. There is much debate about this, but some scholars think the Hindu concept of karmic rebirth is actually Buddhist in origin rather than vice versa — that rather than Buddhism adopting the cosmology of Hinduism, the indigenous religion (Hinduism) absorbed the Buddhist innovation. There’s also some possibility — and this is my own sketchy idea — that the Christian concepts of heaven as reward for good deeds and hell as punishment for bad deeds are actually derived from Mahayana Buddhism, which traditionally has a very strong emphasis on heaven and hell. The Jewish notions of heaven and a purgatorial hell then derive from Christianity, not the other way around. And obviously Islam adopted the Christian view as well.
The vast majority of people in the world believe in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or a post-Buddhist variant of Hinduism, and I think that these religions’ satisfying answers about death are key to their success. Indeed, it seems like wherever two cosmologies are in competition, the winner is the one with a clear answer about what happens after death. (A possible exception to this rule would be the triumph of Neo-Confucianism over Buddhism in late-medieval East Asia, but Neo-Confucianism won adherents in part by insisting that it took better care of the dead, prescribing detailed rites for ancestor worship and disparaging Buddhist monks for abandoning their ancestors and for failing to produce offspring to look after them in future.)
What makes the afterlife narratives of the major world religions so satisfying is that they essentially deny death: we do not cease to be, but merely change our surroundings. You look forward to moving to heaven, or to being reborn, the way you might look forward to retiring and moving to Florida. It’s comforting to believe that after life is more life in a form that we would recognize. By believing in an afterlife, we escape from the terrifying possibility that death is merely cessation, or that it is something else altogether that we cannot possibly know in advance.
Unfortunately, the visions of the afterlife promulgated by the world’s major religions are unverifiable. There is no way to prove that one or another theory of the afterlife is true, so we are left with divine revelation, and the available revelations are contradictory. My guess is that religious theories of the afterlife are no more accurate than religious theories about physics, astronomy, biological history or anything else. Unlike these fields, however, the afterlife is closed to scientific enquiry, so religious views persist.
In my own life, I try to avoid falling prey to the illusion that I know what happens after death. I don’t. This unknowing is very scary, and at times I envy the faith of those who know they’ll be hanging out with Jesus or rocking the Casbah with their 70 virgins. (Do they replace the virgins when they cease to be virgins? Or do you just get 70 who you have to ration out to yourself for the duration of eternity? Or do they become virgins all over again each time? And what’s so great about virgins anyway?) But I would rather face death squarely than pretend it’s some kind of graduation ceremony.
I hope that by acknowledging the inevitability and unknowability of death, I will be able to cherish life more fully, without worrying whether I’ve made the right preparations for whatever comes next.